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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES
Coverage of the Larry Craig Scandal; Gonzales Resigns
Aired September 2, 2007 - 10:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Blaming the press. Larry Craig accuses "The Idaho Statesman" of a vicious witch-hunt to prove he had gay sexual encounters. This after the Republican senator pleaded guilty to a lewd incident in an airport men's room. Should the paper have published the allegations about Craig's previous conduct, and why did it spike the story until after the arrest that led to Craig's resignation? And after Jim McGreevey, Mark Foley and David Vitter, is it open season on politicians' private lives?
Rough justice? Alberto Gonzales resigns after months of negative stories about misleading testimony and ousted federal prosecutors. Did the media hold the attorney general accountable, or, as the president says, drag his name through the mud?
Plus, "Time" editor Rick Stengel calls for a program of national service. Should news magazines be in the opinion business?
And a quarter century of celebrity scandals. Why it's harder to move the outrage meter.
KURTZ: For 25 years journalists had heard the rumors about Larry Craig. Was the Idaho Republican gay? And if so, did that kind of information belong in a newspaper?
At "The Idaho Statesman," reporter Dan Popkey spent eight months investigating allegations about the senator, and in the end he and his editors decided they didn't have enough proof to publish. But that changed this week, when the Capitol Hill newspaper "Roll Call" disclosed that Senator Craig had pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct in June in an incident in a Minnesota airport restroom stall, where an undercover cop said Craig appeared to be soliciting sex.
The senator denied doing anything of the kind, despite his guilty plea, and launched an extraordinary attack on the Boise newspaper.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. LARRY CRAIG (R), IDAHO: For eight months leading up to June 11th, my family and I have been relentlessly and viciously harassed by "The Idaho Statesman". If you saw the article today, you know why.
Let me be clear: I am not been gay. I never have been gay. Still, without a shred of truth or evidence to the contrary, The Statesman has engaged in this witch hunt.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: The pundits immediately began debating or denouncing Craig's conduct.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Whether he's gay or not actually is not our business. And I do think it's -- it's indefensible that the newspaper in Idaho spent a year interviewing 300 people to answer the question, is he gay?
JACK CAFFERTY, CNN: If this moron Larry Craig is reelected to the Senate, if he's stupid enough to run again, if he's re-elected, I will eat the Time Warner Center one brick at a time.
SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: If he knows in his heart that he was guilty of this, I would say he needs to resign.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: So, what are the standards of reporting on the private lives of public figures, particularly when the sources are anonymous?
Joining us now from Boise, Idaho, Dan Popkey, reporter and political columnist for "The Idaho Statesman". In New York, Jonathan Capehart, columnist for "The Washington Post". And here in Washington, Matthew Felling, co-editor of the CBSNews.com's "Public Eye".
Dan Popkey, we just heard the tape again, Larry Craig accusing you and the paper of viciously harassing him, conducting a witch hunt. And yet, you didn't publish a word about the sexual allegations that you spent some months investigating and examining.
Was that a difficult decision?
DAN POPKEY, "THE IDAHO STATESMAN": No, not really. We, after we spoke with Senator Craig on May 14th and weighed his categorical denials of homosexual conduct in -- at any time in his entire lifetime, and weighed against sources that we had who were not willing to put their names to what they were saying, it was -- it wasn't a hard call.
You know, it just -- it wasn't. I mean, we made -- we made the right call. We still think that.
KURTZ: Let me play a little sound from the interview that you had with the senator on May 14th. There's audio available on your Web site, and he was pretty testy, it sounded to me, with you for even pursuing this topic.
Let's listen. (BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
CRAIG: Like I said, Dan, you've done more in your due diligence to spread a false rumor than anybody I have ever known because of your phone calling, even to people who had never heard the rumor. So, do I put up with it? I have to.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
KURTZ: Did you have any concern, Dan Popkey, that you were sort of spreading this around in the course of your reporting on whether or not it was true?
POPKEY: Well, there's no question that, as I made as many phone calls as I did and met as many people as I did, that it was -- the story got out that we were working on this. But to say that we did more to spread this rumor, I just -- the rumor has its roots in the 1982 page scandal when then Representative Craig, a freshman Republican in the House, issued a preemptive statement saying he wasn't involved in the page sex scandal on Capitol Hill.
That's what spread that rumor and continued to get -- to have people talking about it 25 years later in Idaho. But I -- the other thing I want to say is that we were...
KURTZ: Let me just move on to the unnamed source that you relied on who said that he had sex...
POPKEY: Can I just say...
KURTZ: Go ahead. Go ahead.
POPKEY: I wanted to say one other thing. We were discreet, we were respectful in our calls. We weren't alleging anything. We were just asking people what they knew about these claims.
KURTZ: One of the things you were examining was an account by an unnamed source that he says that he had sexual contact with Senator Craig in a bathroom in Washington's Union Station. You went around to the station with a picture of the senator, asking people if they had seen this guy hanging around the restrooms.
If that story wasn't fit to publish before -- and you said that that was not a hard call -- why was it fit to publish after the "Roll Call" story on the arrest in Minnesota?
POPKEY: Because he pleaded guilty. It's as simple as that. He pleaded guilty.
You've read the police report. Everybody by now has heard the -- heard the audio of part of the exchange between he and the officer. And after that, he signed a document and said he was guilty, he was not innocent of the crime of disorderly conduct...
POPKEY: ... which sprung from the lewd conduct sting investigation.
KURTZ: Matthew Felling, should "The Idaho Statesman" have spent months trying to prove that Larry Craig had engaged in gay sexual conduct? Should -- is that a proper avenue of inquiry?
MATTHEW FELLING, CBSNEWS.COM, "PUBLIC EYE": Well, I think what happens with a story like this is you have the allegations and you try to investigate them. And then you peel it back a little bit and there's a little bit more. And it hasn't been debunked and it hasn't been -- it hasn't been absolutely made certain. So you have to try a little bit more.
When we're talking about a senator, we're talking about one of the senior statesmen of the state, you have to do the extra work. And I'm sure that -- I'm sure that Dan would have loved to have stopped after 100, but if he was almost there, then how do we draw the line?
And Dan, I guess I have one question. I'm sorry to breach etiquette on the show, but earlier this week on CNN, you were talking with Kyra Philips and you talked about the credibility of the source, the anonymous source. And you said -- and she asked you -- she pressed you about running with the allegations the day after. And she said, "Oh, so I guess now that the 'Roll Call' story is out, you believe him." And you said, "No, I'm going to say that it's a more credible source now."
Why did you seemingly parse credible versus believing in that fashion? Or was it just a slipup?
POPKEY: No. I don't -- I still don't know who to believe. What we have is the senator saying it never happened, and we have the source saying it did happened (sic) -- did happen, sorry.
He may have been mistaken. He insists that he's not. We've checked him out. There's a good reason -- very good reasons to believe that he would have recognized Senator Craig.
So, we thought he was credible enough to ask the senator about it and to play a recording of the man describing the encounter to the senator and his wife. But, until the guilty plea, you know, we weren't comfortable publishing. But the guilty plea added credibility to the Union Station source's story.
KURTZ: Jonathan Capehart...
POPKEY: And it detracted from the senator's credibility.
KURTZ: Jonathan Capehart...
POPKEY: But I'm not saying...
KURTZ: I'll come back to you, Dan. I've got to go to Jonathan Capehart.
POPKEY: OK. I'm sorry. KURTZ: As a gay journalist, our news organizations in danger of being used in outing campaigns by people who want to force closeted gays into the open? In this particular case, it was a gay activist blogger, Mike Rogers, who was pushing this story on the media.
JONATHAN CAPEHART, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Right. Well, you know, Mike Rogers -- well, the Constitution has freedom of the press. It's a great -- it's a great freedom and a great protection. And Mike Rogers can do what he wants. But if journalists are going to pursue things that come from the blogosphere, it is incumbent upon them to do the due diligence, do the fact-checking, and run the story down to make sure that it is true before it's published.
And I have to say, I have to tip my hat to Mr. Popkey for what he did. He interviewed more than 300 people, I believe, and spent months and months trying to nail the story down, and didn't run with it.
He and his editors were not comfortable running with it until after Senator Craig -- until the story came out that Senator Craig was arrested, pleaded guilty, and signed a statement saying he -- he was not innocent and he knew what he was signing. So -- go ahead, Howard.
KURTZ: It's a great point, Jonathan, because there's a tendency sometimes in news organizations to try to justify all the months of work you put into a story by salvaging some kind of story. But let me ask you, Jonathan, what is the standard for journalism here?
If a married senator -- if you were in a gay bar and a married senator walks in and tries to pick up another man and you see them walk out together, would you write about that, or is it only newsworthy if it happens in a place like a bathroom and there's a police report?
CAPEHART: Well, I mean, it would depend, one -- of course I would call the senator and find out and check and just ask him, "I saw you there. Why were you there? You're married, you have children," possibly.
But the other thing is and I think what you're probably getting to is, is there something going on here because Senator Craig is a Republican and a conservative Republican? And I think that this story really took off not only because of the gay angle, but because of the hypocrisy here.
Here we have a conservative Republican senator who voted -- who voted for the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, who voted for Don't Ask, Don't Tell, who voted for the freedom -- I'm sorry, the Federal Marriage Amendment in 2004. And who said he was going to vote for a constitutional amendment in Idaho that would not only ban same-sex marriage, but also civil unions. So, you have -- what you have here is a senator who votes one way, but seemingly and allegedly acts another.
KURTZ: But is there a danger here, Matthew Felling, that journalists are going to end up as the morality police, reporting on every politician who cheats on his wife or husband? I remember in the Clinton days, during the Monica Lewinsky affair, suddenly there was this whole spate of stories about Bob Dole and Henry Hyde and Bob Livingston and Bob Barr having extramarital affairs. Some of them decades old.
So is there a slippery slope here?
FELLING: Well, no. I think what -- I think if everybody stares at this story long enough, they'll realize that The Statesman -- and I too tip my hat to the restraint they showed, because all too often in the 21st century, journalism -- journalists are accused of showing no restraint. They just run with everything. So, if people follow this template, they will actually break a lot of good stories.
And let's -- I mean, I understand hypocrisy on the right, but, I mean, the media loves to do the same thing with the left. They love showing Al Gore's huge carbon footprint after he had -- after he had come out with all of these Earth Day sort of things.
KURTZ: Or the previous -- the former New Jersey governor who had a gay affair with his homeland security director.
FELLING: Exactly. It works both ways -- it fits too good.
KURTZ: Dan Popkey, people have an image, I think, of journalists as being kind of trained assassins, folks who love to tear down politicians and other public figures for a living, getting a scalp (ph).
What was this experience like for you as somebody who has known and covered Larry Craig for more than two decades?
POPKEY: There's no joy in it, I can tell you that. I have gotten because of all the work I did -- and it's been described as an eight-month investigation. It really was about five months. I worked on other things. But it was over the course of eight months.
He came from a hardscrabble ranch 24 miles from the end of the payment. His grandfather homesteaded the place.
He came from nothing. And he had drive and he had intelligence, and he rose to the very, you know, highest ranks of our government. And I admire him for that, and he's done a lot of good things for Idaho. And this is heartbreaking for people here.
KURTZ: All right.
POPKEY: And it's heartbreaking for us. I mean, we don't...
KURTZ: Jonathan Capehart, what do you think of -- go ahead. I'm sorry. Clearly, this is something that you've struggled with. It's difficult for you.
KURTZ: All right. Let me -- let me move on to Jonathan Capehart.
What do you think of Matthew Felling's point that -- and I guess you started out to say, well, he's a Republican, he's opposed to same- sex marriage. Therefore, there's an hypocrisy angle. So -- but that suggests that the media zero in on people who are conservative Republicans and a liberal Democrat in the same situation might get more of a pass, or at least more lenient treatment.
CAPEHART: No, that's -- no, no, no. That's not the case.
I mean, I seem to recall when Congressman Barney Frank got into trouble, there was a media frenzy around him as well. I just think that, you know, the combination of the gay angle, but also the voting one way and acting another just fueled to, I guess -- I'm a little bit reluctant to call it a media frenzy, because it has negative connotations. I mean, this is -- this is a real story.
KURTZ: A quick question, Matthew Felling.
We've read and seen all these pieces about bathroom stalls and the etiquette of foot-tapping and hand signals, all of which were involved in the Larry Craig case. CNN ran a piece showing somebody in a stall.
Is the media kind of taking this into the toilet here?
FELLING: Well, I mean, first of all, it's late August. And we always have the Chandra Levys and we always have the shark attacks. And I think that there is this curiosity, there is this rubbernecking sensation to go with this story because it is a subculture that we have fascinating. And it of course has a sexual angle, and when you have a senior statesman from Idaho involved in the story, it immediately places it at the top of the agenda.
KURTZ: All right.
Matthew Felling, Jonathan Capehart and Dan Popkey in Boise, thanks very much for joining us.
When we come back, TIME's top editor on whether he now runs an opinion magazine. Rick Stengel is up next.
KURTZ: The cover in this week's "TIME" is a bit unusual. It's a call to action, an argument for national service.
Rick Stengel, the magazine's top editor, was a big booster of this piece. In fact, he wrote it. Stengel took the job just over a year ago, and "TIME," it seems to me, to be placing a much bigger emphasis on serious policy issues.
Rick Stengel joins me now.
So, you're a busy guy. What possessed you to write the cover story pushing for national service? RICHARD STENGEL, EDITOR, "TIME": I know. I kept asking myself all week last week.
It's something I really care about. It's something "TIME" really cares about. It's the ideal of getting people involved, of getting young people to devote a year of their lives to national service in exchange for a scholarship.
I think it's something that will help unite the country, and I'm calling on whoever is the next president to make national service a platform in his or her campaign.
KURTZ: But not mandatory?
STENGEL: Not mandatory. But we have carrots rather than sticks. And I think there is a renaissance now of national service.
I mean, young people now are volunteering at twice the rate as people did in the 1980s. Sixty-one million people volunteered this past year. I mean, there's -- there's a lot going on. There's a lot bubbling. And I want the next president to really harness that.
KURTZ: You were a speechwriter for Bill Bradley's presidential campaign. Did you start thinking about this issue of national service then?
STENGEL: You know, I've always thought about it. I mean, we're probably roughly the same age. You know, I -- after Vietnam, there was a different era then. I think our parents' generation had a kind of Peace Corps moment that we didn't have, and I feel like it's something that a lot of baby boomers missed out on. And it's something that we need in a culture that's increasingly fractious, increasingly divided.
There needs to be a common kind of civic culture. And one of the things that can do that is national service.
I mean, my dad grew up in Brooklyn, New York. He never met anybody from the South or the West. He was stationed in Denver. He was stationed in South Carolina. It made him an American.
KURTZ: I also grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and it's a place to meet people from all over the world. But, of course, national service does take you outside of your shell.
Now, look, I looked over some of the cover stories in "TIME" magazine this year, since the beginning of the year. I counted five on Iraq and foreign policy, eight on politics. There was one on global warming, there was one on immigration. Pretty serious stuff.
What happened to hot summer movies and fighting obesity?
STENGEL: You know, I think people come to "TIME" to tell them what's important, what matters, to put the most important things in the world in perspective, in context. And that's what I want to do. I think that's what our readers want. That's what other people come to us for. You know, there was that great Michael Duffy story about Iraq, what happens when we leave. We have Joe Klein writing about Iraq.
I mean, you know what?
KURTZ: So do these magazines fly off the newsstand, compared to something with a movie star on the cover, a pop culture piece?
STENGEL: They actually do better than pop culture and movie stars, because I think people -- for us, because people don't feel like that's in our DNA. If you're interested in movie stars on the cover, you're so well served on that newsstand, right? I mean...
KURTZ: Not a big shortage of outlets...
KURTZ: ... willing to do with Britney and Paris and all of those folks.
You've hired as columnists Michael Kinsley, Bill Kristol, Walter Isaacson, but at the same time...
STENGEL: We have Samantha Power coming on as a columnist too.
KURTZ: At the same time, because of cutbacks at Time, Inc., which is the parent company of CNN as well, you've had to cut a lot of reporting jobs. So it sounds to me like the formula is more opinion, less original reporting.
STENGEL: Well, what we did rather than cutting is we reshaped the way we report the news. I mean, we were structured for a day before the Internet, a day when, remember, we used to have people out in the field filing to New York, where people were writing up stories.
KURTZ: The great Cuisinart of news magazines.
STENGEL: Right. So we -- we're changing all that. I mean, it's now -- you know, we have people with distinctive voices and incredible reporting skills, like some of the people you mentioned, Mike Greenwald (ph), David Bondrali (ph), who came from "The Washington Post". They're out there, in the field, reporting in for us. We don't need that old bureau system that we had before.
So, some of it was about cutting back to save costs, but a lot of it is about really reconfiguring ourselves for the 21st century.
KURTZ: But this is not -- no longer a news magazine in the old Henry Luce sense. A summary of what happened in the last seven days.
STENGEL: Well, look, Howie, the biggest thing in many ways that we did in this past year is change the delivery. Took Friday and Saturday from Monday and Tuesday. We now come out before the weekend. So, we're not in the business of summarizing the week's news. We're forward-looking, rather than retrospective.
KURTZ: That was a real gamble, it seems to me. Because people are just used to "Newsweek" and "US News" coming out on Monday, and sometimes there's a big story going on. You have to go to press before it's done.
STENGEL: But it also works the other way, too. But the thing is, what we found from our research is that people got the magazine on Monday or Tuesday and they put it aside to read on the weekend. You know what everybody's life is like now.
KURTZ: We're all busy.
STENGEL: And so we wanted to get people the magazine when they were interested in having it. You know, you want to eat the bread when the bread is fresh.
I mean, frankly, I don't understand for the live of me why any magazines come out on Monday anymore. Magazines are a kind of thing that should come out on Friday or Saturday for people to read on the weekend.
KURTZ: But now circulation is down 17 percent to 3.4 million. You're about 300,000 ahead of "Newsweek". That can't make you happy.
STENGEL: Well, we cut the rate base. It's the same time that we announced the Friday delivery. I mean, we...
KURTZ: That's the base that's guaranteed to advertisers.
STENGEL: Oh, I'm sorry. Yes.
KURTZ: You're telling advertisers, we will sell this many copies and here's how much we're charging.
STENGEL: Right. And we reduced that 4.1 million deliberately to 3.25.
STENGEL: Because a lot of the circulation that a lot of magazines have, including us, is not -- doesn't really pay very well, and it's not really people reading the magazine who want to get it. What we wanted to tell advertisers was, what you see is what you get.
These are people who want "TIME" magazine, who are reading it, who are evaluating it. And we didn't want to discount like all these other magazines do.
KURTZ: You talk about eating the bread when it's freshly baked. You have a lot more emphasis on blogging, on your online site. You've got Ana Marie Cox, the former Wonkette, Karen Tumulty, Joe Klein, you know, reeling off their thoughts on...
KURTZ: Is this the future?
STENGEL: I think it is the future. It's the present. It's not even the future.
I mean, one of the things we also did in this past year is we made TIME.com a 27/7 news Web site. It's like we are now out there putting the news in context all day long every day. And we have fantastic blogs.
Like, Swampland, as you know, is a go-to place for anybody interested in Washington. I mean, it's not just Ana Marie. It's Karen Tumulty, it's Joe Klein. But we have a whole slew of other blogs.
We have Nerd World by Lev Grossman about technology. We have a Hong Kong blog, we have a Middle East blog.
KURTZ: All right.
Well, next time you're on you can tell me when you have time to sleep in this new speeded up world.
Rick Stengel, thanks very much for joining us.
Coming up, Katie Couric heads to the war zone, and Andy Rooney strikes out with some way-out-of-left-field comments about baseball.
Our "Media Minute" just ahead.
KURTZ: Time now for the latest in the news business in our "Media Minute".
Andy Rooney has hit one squarely into foul territory. In his syndicated column, the "60 Minutes" curmudgeon had this to say about baseball: "I know all about Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, but today's baseball stars are all guys named 'Rodriguez' to me. They're apparently very good, but they haven't caught my interest."
All guys named 'Rodriguez'? He only likes white guys?
Rooney told "The New York Times" that, "I write columns and have opinions, and some of them are pretty stupid.
On that point, Andy, I have to agree.
Jeff Gannon is back and stirring up controversy. Gannon covered the White House for a conservative online news service until liberal bloggers disclosed that he had posted nude pictures of himself on the Internet offering his services as an escort.
In a new book, Gannon rips the White House press corps for liberal bias, calling NBC's David Gregory a showboater and columnist Helen Thomas little more than a heckler. Gannon told "The Washington Examiner" that publishers weren't interested in "The Great Media War" because he devotes little space to his personal life. So he is self- publishing the book.
Katie Couric is in Iraq and will anchor the "CBS Evening News" this week from Baghdad and Damascus, but the single mother's willingness to take the risk drew only disdain from two women who appeared on FOX News. An official from Concerned Women for America said Couric was driven more by ambition than her children's welfare. And "New York Post" columnist Linda Stasi called the trip a desperate move to gain some sort of credibility.
Excuse me? First, reporting from Iraq doesn't exactly goose the ratings these days. Second, any journalist who risks her life by going there should be applauded. And third, did anyone say Brian Williams was desperate or neglecting his teenage kids when he went to Iraq last spring?
Ahead in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, Alberto Gonzales quits after months of journalistic criticism. Was the embattled attorney general done in by the press?
Also, the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina makes New Orleans a magnet for journalists and politicians. But will the coverage soon fade again to black?
KURTZ: Welcome back.
He stood in the midst of a media maelstrom for months, battered by allegations that he had politicized the Justice Department and misled Congress. And still, Alberto Gonzales would not resign.
Journalists were incredulous. Even many Republicans had abandoned the attorney general, and still he clung to the job.
But on Monday morning, after things had finally quieted down, Gonzales said he was quitting without a single reference to the scandals that had dominated so many front pages and newscasts. Media reports varied on whether Gonzales' exit was voluntary.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: Gonzales was under fire from Democrats and Republicans to resign, and today he did.
KATIE COURIC, CBS NEWS: He hung on as long as he could, but tonight, Alberto Gonzales has been forced to resign as attorney general.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS: I think the attorney general wanted to leave as much on his own terms as possible.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Even most conservative commentators weren't sorry to see Gonzales go.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: He was a drag on the administration. I mean, he was a dead man walking for six months.
MICHELLE MALKIN, FOX NEWS: Nobody liked Alberto Gonzales, and there are a lot of grassroots conservatives who are very happy that he's not there anymore.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: And, of course, it took about five seconds for the media speculation on Gonzales' replacement to begin.
Joining us now, Bill Plante, White House correspondent for CBS News; CNN justice correspondent, Kelli Arena; John Dickerson, chief political correspondent for slate.com. And in Boston, Bob Zelnick, former ABC correspondent, now a journalist and professor at Boston University.
Bill Plante, the president of the United States says Gonzales' reputation was dragged through the mud, suggesting that he was unfairly pilloried by the press.
Does he have a case?
BILL PLANTE, CBS WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That overlooks the fact that there are people in the United States Senate who think that the attorney general lied.
KURTZ: Not just Democrats?
PLANTE: That's true. I'm not saying -- I'm not taking a position one way or the other, but there's a good case to be made for the fact that the senators found him less than forthcoming.
Is that dragging somebody's reputation through the mud, or is it, simply, if you're the president and you back this guy and you've always been stirred by his personal story of up from hardscrabble poverty, you want to protect him?
KURTZ: John Dickerson, Gonzales took no questions when he read his little statement saying that he was leaving, said nothing about these scandals that cost him his job.
Was he sort of stiffing the press to the end?
JOHN DICKERSON, SLATE.COM: Oh, yes. This wasn't a press conference. It was a statement read...
KURTZ: Yes. I hate when we call it a press conference.
DICKERSON: Well, that's right. One Republican that used to work in this White House joked, though, this was the best press conference Gonzales gave, because there have been so many instances in which his press conference statements turned out not to be true and that, of course, is at the heart of his problems.
KURTZ: Kelli Arena, in fact, last weekend, a Justice Department spokesman told "The New York Times" -- and you were making inquiries as well -- that Gonzales had no plans to resign.
KELLI ARENA, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: And those that were close to him within the Justice Department were very surprised that he made this decision. I mean, this was a shocker for most people, and even heads of divisions that are under Justice said that they had no indication that it wasn't his plan to stay until the end of this administration.
KURTZ: And, of course, it would have been less of a shock had he done this several months ago, when he was on the front pages every day.
Now, Bob Zelnick, this was largely, at the beginning, a newspaper-driven story. Television was late to this game. It was complicated -- all the charges about U.S. attorneys and conflicting testimony and so forth. Do you think the media kind of whipped up this issue about the -- particularly about the fired prosecutors, or was it Gonzales' own shifting testimony that did him in?
ROBERT ZELNICK, PROFESSOR, BOSTON UNIVERSITY: I think it may have been some whipping up by the media, but they had a cooperative ally in the attorney general himself.
I was around Washington long enough before taking refuge in a northeastern university to know that there's one thing that is inexcusable, and that is lying or dissembling to members of Congress. Once you are regarded as someone who cannot or does not tell the truth, your future is short. And that's what happened with Gonzales.
I think they waited for it to blow over. They waited for it to blow over. And it didn't because of the dissembling.
KURTZ: But of course this wouldn't have happened had the newspapers not been pushing very hard on this question of, what did Gonzales know and when did he know it about the involvement in both politicizing, hiring and firing, at the Justice Department and the firing of those eight or nine prosecutors.
ZELNICK: I agree with you. I agree with you, Howard, but newspapers and the media are always going to do that. When they see a chink in the armor, they exploit it. And they -- of course there was some bias against Gonzales because of his relationship with the president, because of the positions that he took on eavesdropping and surveillance and war powers. So he was not a popular fellow with much of the media to begin with.
But again, the issue in this particular matter was credibility. And I think he suffered.
KURTZ: I see you shaking your head, Kelli Arena.
ARENA: Yes, because I totally disagree. I mean, this was a very difficult story for the public to understand, the firing of those prosecutors and what exactly was wrong with that and how it could have influenced the Justice Department.
And I remember having conversations with so many people who just didn't understand it. And it wasn't a visual story either.
The reason it stayed a story was because this attorney general kept retracting statements that he had made, because other people came forward from within the Justice Department to contradict statements that he had made, or to bring further controversy to the table in front of Congress. So that's what kept this story going. It was the facts and the covering of those facts that made that -- that kept this alive. It wasn't because there was some agenda.
PLANTE: I really think the tipping point in this came when the director of the FBI...
KURTZ: Robert Mueller.
PLANTE: ... Robert Mueller, before Congress, in July, suggested that Gonzales' version of what had happened in that hospital room was not actually true.
KURTZ: This was the hospital room scene where other people said that Gonzales was essentially pressuring a very sick then attorney general John Ashcroft to sign off on the domestic eavesdropping program. And sure, now you had the FBI director saying, in effect, and not so subtly, that Gonzales was not telling the truth.
ARENA: And the former deputy attorney general, James Comey.
DICKERSON: That's right. You had high level Republican officials saying it. And then Republican senators -- veteran Republican senators saying also Gonzales has a big credibility problem. The Democrats didn't have to get involved and the press didn't have to get involved.
KURTZ: Bill Plante, in that headline we played from Katie Couric, she said that the attorney general had been forced out. Others said that this was his decision.
Has the press been able to resolve whether Gonzales was pushed here? PLANTE: Not entirely, but we do know this much: she used that headline. The first report on the broadcast was mine. I said the decision was his.
I said it because he did it on his own timetable. He knew just as well as we did that the White House chief of staff and that other top officials, the White House counsel, all believed that it would be better for the president for him to go. But they didn't have the final say, the president did. So it was between the president and Gonzales, and eventually he decided.
KURTZ: John Dickerson, I want to take you back to 2004 in a press conference where you asked the president a question that got a lot of play at the time and then kind of relevant in this context. Let's take a look.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DICKERSON: After 9/11, what would your biggest mistake be, would you say, and what lessons have you learned from it?
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You know, I just -- I'm sure something will pop into my head here in the midst of this press conference with all the pressure of trying to come up with an answer, but it hasn't yet.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Now, still, today, President Bush didn't acknowledge any mistakes by Gonzales, or at the Justice Department. In fact, he said Gonzales had done nothing wrong.
Has that fostered a kind of media image of the president as a stubborn guy?
DICKERSON: It has. Well, that answer that he gave there and subsequent answers on this question and mistakes have fostered the image, but particularly with personnel, where you have situations here where you have veteran Republicans, where you have members of the administration saying Gonzales is both -- you know, he's a disaster. And the president is not only saying he's not and he's doing a great job, he's going even further.
After Gonzales gave a truly abysmal performance in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the president came out and said his confidence had been increased. This seems to me to be the thing that was not available to the president. He can say Al's a nice guy, but to come out and say that my confidence in him has increased...
DICKERSON: ... suggests a lack of judgment and that he lived in a bubble and all these other story lines.
KURTZ: And journalists were not shy about pointing that out.
DICKERSON: Not at all.
KURTZ: All right.
Now, after Gonzales said that he was going, and taking a lot of people by surprise -- it was leaked about 8:00 in the morning on a Monday morning -- we looked at some of the live television coverage of who might take that job next. Let's take a look.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: John, I'm getting from very senior level officials that very likely, it's going to be Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, who would be replacing him.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No decision has been made about who the permanent replacement will be for Gonzales. We are told that Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff is "a leading candidate".
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So, some names being bandied about. What are you hearing? We're hearing Michael Chertoff as a possible successor.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Michael Chertoff. Another name that I've heard is Orrin Hatch, the senior senator from Utah.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Kelli Arena, why all the speculation two minutes later when we don't really know?
ARENA: We don't really know, but I think you have a void to sell, and people say, OK, and your attention span in the media is about that quick.
ARENA: And so who's -- you know, what happens next? You know, we had all heard about Gonzales' woes for so long, I think people were hungry for what was the next choice going to be?
Was it going to be something that would fix things over at Justice? Would it be pleasing to members of Congress, you know, who that choice would be?
You know, the sources that I spoke to had thrown out several names that obviously had been discussed for some time. You know, people talk to different sources and different sources have people that are at the top of their lists.
KURTZ: And some people they may be pushing.
ARENA: Exactly. You know, floating a trial balloon out there.
KURTZ: All right.
ARENA: Let's see -- you know, let's see what comes up. KURTZ: Bob Zelnick in the media coverage in recent years that the press kind of looked down its nose at Bush's Texans -- Gonzales, an old friend. Harriet Miers and, of course, other people like Karl Rove and Karen Hughes and Dan Bartlett also hailing from Texas -- as kind of being a bunch of presidential cronies.
ZELNICK: Well, I think one or two of the ones you mentioned were presidential cronies. And I think in Gonzales' case, his failure to have that sense that you develop in Washington over some period was very, very costly to him. I think it helped shape his approach to dealing with the Congress and it turned out to be a disaster. So, I think there is that legitimate issue of cronyism with respect to a small handful of presidential confidantes.
KURTZ: I know Bill Clinton felt that his group of Arkansans was kind of looked down upon by the Elite Washington press corps.
PLANTE: It happens in every administration.
PLANTE: Reagan -- you know, Reagan, Clinton...
KURTZ: Californians, sure.
Bill Plante, when President Bush...
ZELNICK: I don't think...
KURTZ: Go ahead. Go ahead, Bob.
ZELNICK: I don't think it was a question of being looked down upon by the Washington press corps, so much as the inherent difficulties of trying to get along without some Washington experience, or at least real big league experience.
ZELNICK: And that was the problem here.
KURTZ: After Gonzales resigned and President Bush came out and made a statement about his good friend and what a great guy he was and so forth, the White House press corps was kind of out of position, and the White House press corps was not happy about this.
Can you explain?
PLANTE: The president was on vacation for about two weeks. There were three major news events while he was on vacation.
Those reporters who were with him, who were down in Crawford, who were traveling with him -- I was not one of them -- were out of position for every single one of those major news stories. And on the day he left, he decided in the morning to have a news conference. The press corps that was going to travel with him was already on a plane headed for -- headed for the next stop. KURTZ: And then it happened again when Karl Rove resigned, and it happened again when Gonzales resigned.
So the reporters must be saying, we're spending all this money and time and energy to cover the president. Are they pretty steamed about this?
PLANTE: Absolutely. But two things.
In today's media world, there are other people who can pick up the slack.
PLANTE: And the White House doesn't really care.
All right. We'll end on that note, but we will back.
Still to come, one-third of New Orleans' population still hasn't returned after two years. Did the media and the politicians use the city this week as a photo-op?
KURTZ: New Orleans was the place to be this week. President Bush was there. And Hillary Clinton. And Barack Obama. And John Edwards. And so were a small battalion of journalists led by NBC's Brian Williams, who talked about covering Katrina with The Today's Show's Matt Lauer.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: I know you remember that morning two years ago. You and I were speaking by cell phone. It was the only way we could communicate through the walls of the Superdome behind us here.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: But they've all moved on now that the two-year anniversary of the hurricane has passed.
John Dickerson, is it fair for the press to continue to blame President Bush for these bureaucratic problems in getting aid to the people who need it, either people who are living in New Orleans or the people who haven't returned to the city after that devastating storm?
DICKERSON: Well, the president shares some portion of the blame. The press -- what has happened, though, is the press is covering the story as it exists now, which is to say there are lots of people blaming the president, so they report that. There are Democratic presidential candidates who are making a lot of hay out the president's behavior.
And in this case, it's not just the anniversary of a tragedy, it's the anniversary of a big bungling within the White House. And so that's very much a part of the original story line, and so, therefore, now is once again being reprised two years later.
KURTZ: Bill Plante, you're at the White House all the time. If Bush talked about New Orleans more, as opposed to, say, on an anniversary, reporters would cover it more, would they not?
PLANTE: They would. He was there, I think, 15 -- or 14 times last year.
PLANTE: This year, I think this was the third time that he was there. So there was much less emphasis on it this year. Had he put more emphasis on it, he would have gotten more attention from the press.
Bob Zelnick, you know, Brian Williams has taken "NBC Nightly News" to New Orleans more than 10 times. "The New York Times" I think has done a pretty good job of continuing to cover this story. "TIME" has a cover story a couple of weeks ago. But haven't most of the media decided that this is basically old news and moved on?
ZELNICK: I think so. And I think it's unfortunate if they have made that conclusion, because you've appropriated more than $120 billion, you do have a third of the population yet to move back. There are both good and bad things that have happened.
More than 220 miles of levees and walls have been built. So I think it is a story of great importance and continuing importance, and you just have to report it somewhat differently than another chapter in the original malfeasance.
KURTZ: But obviously, John Dickerson, it lacks the drama of the hurricane itself, when you have people clinging to roofs and water rushing in. And, you know, anybody who goes there -- I went there about eight months after the storm -- is just struck by the continuing miles and miles of devastation and abandoned houses and all that. And you come back and you want to sort of tell the world about it. But in the world in which we live, it's got to compete with Michael Vick pleading guilty to dogfighting and Larry Craig and everything else.
DICKERSON: That's right. And what was interesting is, after Katrina, there were a lot of people -- you know, even Condi Rice said we need to have a national conversation about race. And what everybody said was, you know, we had forgotten about this story of America's forgotten people and the poor before Katrina, so let's all think about it now. But now we've seen that that conversation, even after this devastating tragedy, has, in fact, shrunken away.
KURTZ: When the president holds a news conference, the questions tend to be about Iraq or whatever's in the news, Alberto Gonzales, various scandals. Do correspondents have a duty, or should they, you know, more frequently bring up New Orleans as just sort of this slow motion disaster that continues, or is that not really your job? PLANTE: I think our job is to stick to the news of the day. But that doesn't mean that once that's exhausted in a news conference, you can't bring up some of the lingering topics, like New Orleans.
I mean, if this anniversary served any purpose, it allowed reporters like Katie and others to go back down there and look at individual aspects. The education system, for example, where that is after two years.
I mean, there was some emphasis on those things. Perhaps not enough.
KURTZ: There's so many aspects to the story that we should continue to cover. There's been some progress and in many ways lack of progress just continues to be appalling.
Bob Zelnick, John Dickerson, Bill Plant, thanks very much for joining us.
Up next, 25 years of celebrity scandals. What's once shocked the press now seems, well, pretty mild.
KURTZ: Celebrity scandals have become embedded in the media's DNA. Every couple of days, it seems, somebody somewhere who's been mentioned in "People" or "US" or on "Access Hollywood" gets into some kind of trouble and we all start buzzing about it.
Now comes "Entertainment Weekly" with a cover story on the 25 biggest celeb scandals of the past 25 years. You know now magazines love lists. And here's what's really striking -- some of the older incidents seem incredible mild by the standards of today's cut throat media.
KURTZ (voice-over): Remember the pop group Milli Vanilli? OK, you probably don't. But it was considered a huge deal back in 1990 when the lead vocalist admit they didn't actually sing on their records; they were lip syncing during performances. Today, that would probably get a yawn.
Actor Rob Lowe made a notorious sex tape in 1988 with two female partners, one of them only 16, and his career briefly seemed doomed. That was before sex videos featuring Pamela Anderson and Paris Hilton leaked out, and in today's X-rated culture probably boosted their stardom.
Roseanne Barr's crotch-grabbing rendition of the national anthem? Madonna simulating a sex act on stage? Today, both would be big hits on YouTube.
Hugh Grant caught with a street hooker? That may get turned into a reality show. Woody Allen marrying Soon-Yi Previn, the 21-year-old adopted daughter of his long-time partner Mia Farrow? There's still a yuck factor, but people still watch his movies.
And then there was Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction at the Super Bowl. It was tawdry and inappropriate, but from the reaction, you'd think that western civilization had come to a halt. Today, it takes a drunken, anti-Semitic tirade by Mel Gibson to qualify as a big celebrity scandal, or a racist comedy club rant by Michael Richards, or Paris jailed for a suspended license, or Lindsay busted for drugs after 100-mile-an-hour joy ride.
KURTZ: Maybe we've become more cynical about our celebrities. Or maybe, in an era of perpetual outrage, it just takes more to shock us.
Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES.
I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Sunday morning at 10:00 a.m. Eastern for another critical look at the media.
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